Italy Detains Two Migrant Rescue Vessels for Violations of New Law

Italian migrant rescues
Sea-Eye is being detailed for 20 days for failing to proceed immediately to port instead conducting a second rescue (Sea-Eye file photo)

Published Jun 4, 2023 1:14 PM by The Maritime Executive

Italian authorities are continuing their efforts to slow the arrival of migrants rescued from the Mediterranean into its ports. Late on Friday, June 2, two German-operated rescue boats were notified by the Italian Coast Guard that they would each be detained for violating the country’s new rules for the disembarkation of migrants saved from the Mediterranean. Italy’s recently elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has vowed to crack down on the influx of migrants while the NGO groups are calling the efforts unjust and endangering lives.

The NGO Sea-Eye reports its rescue boat Sea-Eye 4 rescued 17 people in the Libyan search and rescue zone on Tuesday, May 30. Under the new law they were required to report the rescue and then ordered by the authorities to proceed directly to the port of Ortona in central Italy on the Adriatic. However, before it reached the port, the vessel received reports of a larger boat with 400 people in distress in the Maltese SAR zone. They reversed course beginning a search for the second vessel which is a violation of the Italian law. 

Sea-Eye reports while searching for the second vessel they received a distress call from a sailboat with 32 people aboard. They rescued those people from the Maltese zone and continued the search for the larger vessel. The boat with 400 people eventually drifted into the Italian zone and with the Coast Guard responding the vessel the Sea-Eye 4 proceeded to Ortona. Arriving in port they said the Italian Coast Guard informed them they will be detained for 20 days because they broke the law which requires the ship to immediately head to port after a rescue and not to search for other vessels or conduct additional rescues.

The Sea-Eye 4 is a 51-year old former offshore supply ship acquired by the NGO and put into service in 2021. It is a larger vessel at 174 feet in length operating with a crew of 26.


The smaller Mare*Go went to a nearer port saying it was irresponsible due to the health of the people rescued from the sea and crew fatigue (Mare*Go file photo)


A smaller vessel, the Mare*Go was on its first mission after being rechristened. They reported rescuing 36 migrants in the central Mediterranean and were ordered by the Italian authorities to proceed to the Sicilian port of Trapani. The vessel was reportedly built in 1917 and is 69 feet long with a top speed of just 6.8 knots. It is just 46 gross tons and is listed in the registries as a “pleasure craft.”

The NGO said in a statement that it informed the authorities that its vessel, Mare*Go, lacked the necessary resources to provide adequate care to the rescued individuals for the extensive 32-hour journey to Trapani. It also informed the authorities that its crew had been out on the open sea for several days carrying out rescue operations and therefore it was unreasonable to make that many hours of navigation. The NGO decided to disregard the orders and instead proceeded to Lampedusa saving it says as much as 36 hours of navigation.

“After the disembarkation of the rescued people, we were immediately informed that Mare*Go is blocked for 20 days and we believe that we will likely face a fine because we broke the new Italian Decree Law,” said the NGO in a statement. The Italian Coast Guard is citing the vessel for proceeding to an unauthorized port and disregarding its instructions.

The Italian authorities confirmed over the weekend that the Mare*Go is blocked for 20 days. Also, they will have to pay a fine of €3,333 (approximately $3,500). The NGO continues to assert because of the health conditions of the people they rescued and crew fatigue it would have been irresponsible to sail to the assigned port.

In January, the Italian Parliament passed the controversial migration law advocated by the government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The law requires humanitarian rescue ships to head to port immediately after each rescue, foregoing additional rescues even if they are in the immediate vicinity of people in distress. The authorities can also designate distant ports of disembarkation with the captains and NGOs liable for fines of up to $50,000 and having their vessels impounded for disobeying the law.

Critics of the law point out that despite the government’s efforts, Italy continues to see an increasing number of arrivals. They report that 50,400 cases have been recorded so far this year compared to 19,700 in the same period of 2022.

Mare*Go and Sea-Eye 4 are the latest rescue vessels subjected to the new law. In March, a rescue ship funded by British street artist Banksy, the MV Louise Michel, was detained in Lampedusa for disobeying Italian coast guard orders to head to Sicily, with the ship opting to remain at sea looking for more migrants in distress. The NGOs also report the Geo Barents, a ship associated with the group Doctors Without Borders, also ran afoul of the new law. They argue the law’s real objective is to hinder and prevent the rescue activities of the NGO fleet.